I’ve heard it said before that every songwriter writes from insecurity, but that’s not quite right. Every songwriter writes from ego.
No doubt about it. There’s something innately gratifying about completing a song that props you up for the rest of the week. When you pluck some delicious chorus melody out of the air and scribble it down, there’s a significant part of you that wants to light up a cigar, lean back in your chair, and utter that immortal adage of satisfaction: ‘Boom’.
So it naturally hurts when someone pokes their finger through your cigar-hazed fantasy. Your first fully completed song hangs framed above the mantle; you sit bleary-eyed with love, reminiscing about how each perfectly constructed line came into being. But suddenly, a snickity little gremlin appears from your periphery, shouting words of abuse so vile as to curse down the sun, and you fold into a little sweaty ball of misery. Sound familiar?
Your first encounter with criticism is make-or-break time. It’s where your artistic ideas, which get cosy in the comfort of your own head, are thrust into the real, cold world. And it’s serious: some people never recover from the first go-around. But let me give you a little phrase to remember next time you come up against the gremlin:
‘Your critics are always right, and your critics are never right.’
Let me explain. Remember your heavy metal phase? Remember buying that brand new amp, turning it up to 11, and rocking out that first solo? Remember your little sister slamming through the door, stuffing her pigtails in her ears, yelling ‘SHUT UP, YOU SUCK!’ She was, in many ways, just as eloquent as much of the modern music press, and she was a valuable critic.
Another example. I was busking in my local town centre, and playing one of my own songs. A bedraggled, ineffably cool man carrying a guitar was stood watching me from the opposite street corner. As I finished, he walked up to me and dropped ten pounds in the box, and said: ‘Play that song again’.
The musician and the sister are two critics: one hated me, one loved me. One didn’t know a thing about music, one probably knew a fair bit. But here’s what I mean to say: Both opinions were equally right.
Everybody, critic or not, belongs to a demographic: both of the above opinions reflected the demographics that the critics belonged to, and so were equally right. But both were equally wrong, because they failed to represent any demographic other than their own.
Your Warhammer-obsessed male flatmate who tells you your song sucks is only speaking from the Warhammer-obsessed demographic. Your bleary-eyed elderly teacher who loves your singing voice is speaking only from that perspective. Your little sister utterly reflects her age group when she says that heavy metal sucks, but if you were playing Disney songs she’d be loving it.
But where does this leave our central question? Musicians, just like any salesman in the marketplace, must aim their products at certain demographics. You should therefore only trust the critics who are representative of the demographic you’re aiming it. But, like a sensible entrepreneur, take note of everything you hear: if you suddenly notice a groundswell of critical reception from the over-65’s, maybe you should take aim there. Always offer what they’re calling for.
So don’t get downbeat when the gremlin curses your work. You can keep the cigar, but make sure you can see through the smoke.